Now, with Europe increasingly dependent on Russian oil and gas, Russia is a power to be reckoned with. The Russian business and political elite does not consider the EU to be as important as in the 1990s, when Russia needed Western credits and was afraid of economic isolation.
Today, Russian economists like to compare Russia's annual economic growth of over 6 percent with that of 1.5-2.5 percent in the EU. Why should the EU be teaching us, they ask?
There is much that divides the two: the profound differences over energy politics, Russia's economic and political disputes with Poland and Estonia. And on the eve of the May 17-18 EU-Russia summit in Samara, there is little hope that any common ground will be found. In fact, it will be an acheivement if relations do not deteriorate further.
Underscoring Russia's tough political line toward the EU is the Russian political elite's general aversion towards Europe and to the European model of economic and political development. Many in Russia's political elite believe Europeans to be preoccupied with civil liberties, human and minority rights, as well as being soft on immigration. And there have been repeated accusations that Europeans fail to respect Russia's role in defeating fascism in World War II. The Russian political elite also considers the EU to be too bureaucratic and socialist.
Despite all that, the EU is still Russia's main trading partner: according to statistics from Russia's Economic and Trade Ministry, trade with the union makes up 52 percent of Russia's foreign trade, 70 percent of all foreign investment in the Russian economy comes from the EU, and Russia keeps about 40 percent of its $370 billion currency reserves in euros.
But the future may well be different. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has repeatedly stressed that the main economic and political developments in the 21st century will take place in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.
Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's leading spin doctor, has advanced a model of a Europe with two centers, Western and Eastern.
Russia has done more to advance trade with eastern countries especially with oil-rich Arab countries, and the BRIC countries, an informal coalition of Brazil, Russia, India, and China that according to Goldman Sachs will be the fastest-developing economies in the next 20 years. In Putin's now infamous speech in Munich in February, the Russian president said the combined gross national products of BRIC already exceeds that of the EU and this gap will only grow wider.
Not listening anymore (TASS)
There is another aspect to Russia's diminishing interest in the EU. Despite its rhetoric about NATO expansion and the proposed deployment of U.S. missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia does not perceive Europe to be a serious military threat. It can, therefore, pay more attention to potential conflicts and competition for resources in the Pacific region and Southeast Asia.
Speaking in Vladivostok in April, First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov said, "We have no danger in the North Atlantic. Who would we go to war with there? With NATO? We don't have bad relations [with NATO], but importantly [we have] a system of treaties, [and of] mechanisms, of which there are none in the Pacific, as there are absolutely no rules of the game [there]," "Izvestia" reported on April 16.
Russians Don't Feel European
A general aversion towards Europe also seems to be shared by ordinary Russians. A poll conducted in February by the Moscow-based Levada Center showed that 71 percent of almost 2,000 Russian respondents said they do not consider themselves to be Europeans. Forty-five percent said they see the EU as a threat to Russia. And 75 percent said that they believe that Russia is a unique country and must forge its own path.
Such anti-EU sentiments are compounded with anti-Americanism and are actively encouraged by the pro-Kremlin media. In February, for example, the pro-Kremlin website e-generator.ru published a list of "Russophobic" publications in the West. In first and third place were the British daily "Financial Times" and the French daily "Le Monde."
Political relations between the EU and Russia are likely to remain in limbo for some time. Instead of working with the bloc as a single entity, Russia will attempt to build on ties with the older European powers, while trying to cultivate ties with the newer EU members. Already this year, Russia has made bilateral energy agreements with Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.
In light of Russia's increased assertiveness, the EU is fortifying ties with the United States. In April, at an EU-U.S. summit in Washington, EU and U.S. leaders signed an agreement on trans-Atlantic economic integration.
Sergei Karaganov, who heads the influential Foreign and Defense Policy Council (SVOP), a conservative Russian think tank, told globalaffairs.ru on April 9, "In this situation of mutual misunderstanding, a lack of cooperation and the prevailing element of competition between both sides, negotiations could rather create new problems."
In fact, the current state of limbo does Russia little harm. Moscow knows the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement will be automatically extended in December and, as a policy document from Russia's Foreign Ministry stated earlier this year, there will be no legal vacuum and the question of status is more of a problem for the EU than it is for Russia.
For now, delay and divide may continue to be Russia's modus operandi.